‘Justice for Marija’ – Serbia’s first #MeToo scandal highlights the weaknesses of its democracy

‘Justice for Marija' – Serbia's first #MeToo scandal highlights the weaknesses of its democracy

“I’ve been fighting for more than a year. I want him to go to jail,” says Marija Lukic, a young women who accuses her former employer of sexual harassment. Her story has sparked a discussion about violence against women in Serbia

(Marion Dautry)

“He offered me a better position if I slept with him. He told me it was the only way he could trust me,” says Marija Lukić. She sits on a terrace in April in front of a coffee that she forgets to drink. This young mother of two children says that she was harassed and assaulted for two years by her employer, the mayor of the municipality of Brus.

She finally reported him to the police on 8 March 2018, International Women’s Day. The following day she was fired from her job. The trial, which didn’t begin until February 2019, continues to drag on. At the last hearing in early April, the lawyer for the accused simply didn’t show up to court. But Marija remains determined.

According to a study by the Autonomski Zenski Centar (Autonomous Women’s Centre, AZC), nine out of ten women in Serbia between the ages of 18 and 30 have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. “It’s the most widespread form of violence against women, but it’s often considered to be part of the culture. People don’t take it that seriously,” says Sanja Pavlović of the AZC. Victims of sexual harassment also lack trust in the country’s political and legal institutions. Although sexual harassment has been a crime in Serbia since 2016, reporting aggressors is often not seen as an option.

To back up her claims, Marija provided the police with 15,000 text messages from Milutin Jeličić. In one of them he writes: “Kissssses, I waaant you, when are we going to make love? it’s already been twooooo yeaaars.” [sic]

“Give him what he wants or get lost”

One day, “he hugged me so tightly I couldn’t move anymore…[.] Suddenly, his hands were all over me. I started crying and insulting him with every name in the book. He left and slammed the door behind him,” says Marija, staring into her now lukewarm coffee. Later, he wrote her a text message asking her if she had “calmed down.” “I told him I couldn’t work under these conditions. He apologised and said it’s just that he was in love with me and I had to understand.” When she asked for help, one of her colleagues told her to “give him what he wants or get lost.”

Milutin Jeličić denies all the accusations. “She sent those messages to herself. She’s problematic. She wanted a promotion and she blackmailed me. She wanted €5,000 or €10,000,” he told the newspaper Blic. In another interview, he asserted that the whole thing was a plot for revenge by a local contractor who was refused a building permit. He would later state that the accusations were an attack against the president of the country, Aleksandar Vučić, with whom he claims to be close.

After Marija published some of the messages she received on her Facebook page, men confronted her on the street. One of them had just been released from prison for murder. One person wrote on her Twitter account that she was going to “end up like Oliver Ivanović,” a Serbian politician shot and killed in a drive-by-shooting in January 2018 in north Kosovo.

Marija was terrified. She once again found herself out of work. Her husband, a barber, lost the lease on his salon and her sister was dismissed from the nursery where she worked. Then she saw the #MeToo movement spread across social media following the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the United States and became inspired. “I realised that I wasn’t alone and I found the strength to speak out, even here in Serbia, even here in Brus,” she says.

When the newspaper Blic started covering the story, Marija became a household name throughout the country. #PravdaZaMarijuLukić (#JusticeForMarijaLukić) began to appear on social networks. “Full support! All of Serbia is behind you! The media cannot turn their attention away from you and the young women who are being subjected to the same torture. Headlines come and go, but this is the beginning of a fight for Serbia’s healing,” one Twitter user wrote to her.

For Pavlović of the AZC, Marija is both ordinary and extraordinary. “Women experience sexual harassment at work every day, so she is sharing the experience of millions of women,” she says. But her story has attracted unprecedented attention, which has “made her into a leading figure, bravely demanding justice with very little power and in spite of threats.” Six other women made similar accusations of violence committed by Jeličić. One of them will testify at the trial.

Marija is attracting international attention and has won the status of a human rights defender. In April, the Serbian organisation Gradjanske Inicijative (Civic Initiative) teamed up with the international non-profit Civicus to launch the Freedom Runner campaign in her honour on the occasion of International Civil Society Week in Belgrade (8-12 April). According to Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, the women of the #MeToo movement who face negative pushback are amongst those defenders as defined by a resolution adopted in 1998. “What you are describing in Serbia sounds surprisingly similar to things you hear in Central America, Latin America, Africa, Asia and in the Gulf region, where sophisticated methods are being used to silence women,” he says.

In the land of the Serbian progressives

The Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka, or SNS) of President Aleksandar Vučić, in power since 2012, rarely misses an opportunity to highlight its commitment to women’s rights. “All of the women in Serbia deserve more rights and protection from the state,” Zorana Mihajlović, minister of transport and president of the gender equality commission created in 2014, said in a written response to Equal Times. She points to the criminalisation of sexual harassment enshrined in the law. “The first year after it came into force, the Ministry of Justice brought charges against 286 people, 257 investigations were carried out and 26 judgements were handed down,” she says.

In 2013, Serbia ratified the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence. The president appointed an openly gay Prime Minister in 2017. “I’m not denying that Serbia has a problem with violence against women,” says Mihajlović. But when it comes to the trial of Milutin Jeličić, she has no comment. “As a representative of the government I don’t want to interfere in any way with the legal proceedings,” she says, adding: “I have faith that the judiciary will exercises its powers to the fullest extent and render a verdict.” She then steers the discussion back to the subject of domestic violence. “I encourage women to report violence. We cannot turn a blind eye and say that violence is just an internal family affair.”

But Marija Lukić condemns what she sees as the government’s progressive posturing. “The silence of the authorities has shaken me to the very core of my being,” she says. She doesn’t know to respond to women who tell her that they are in the same situation. “How can I tell them they should go public and press charges when the public institutions are not on our side?” she asks.

The SNS has indeed long remained silent about the accusations against Jeličić, a key political figure in the region for 20 years and, when the scandal broke, a local commissioner for the SNS. “Vučić is protecting me,” Jeličić warned Marija in a text that she made public.

On 10 April, a man distributed photos of a naked woman to journalists present at the trial, saying: “This is the true face of Marija Lukić.” On 8 March, Jeličić was a conspicuous presence at an SNS stand, where he handed out flowers to women. Many residents of Brus are willing to support him and consider Marija to be a liar.

“The directors of the public companies are his best friends, members of his family. If you want a job in a public institution you have to go see him. I’m sure a lot of people are completely dependent on him,” says Marija with a sigh. In December 2018 there were more than 1,800 unemployed people in Brus out of a population of roughly 16,000.

Freedom of the press and an independent judiciary

According to a 2018 report by the international organisation Freedom House, “in recent years the ruling Serbian Progressive Party has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties…” Though national media outlets have reported on the scandal, the threat of censorship is never far away. At the opening of the trial, the judge decided to bar access to journalists. When Blic covers the story, all of the copies of the newspaper are purchased immediately from the kiosks of Brus at dawn. On 27 February, the electricity was cut off to the city’s cultural centre, which houses the local cable and internet transmitter. The signal was interrupted just before the broadcast of a programme that featured Marija as a guest. The local media websites and television station of Brus, which receive their funding from the municipality, have not said a word about the case. In the 2019 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Serbia dropped 14 places.

But persistent media coverage, international attention and pressure from the political opposition, which has spoken out about the case, have forced the SNS and President Vučić to react. Since last December, he has faced weekly demonstrations throughout the country protesting his authoritarianism. In mid-March of this year, Jeličić was forced to resign from office and his duties in the SNS were suspended. For Marija, this small victory was far from enough. “I’ve been fighting for more than a year. I want him to go to jail,” she says.

A passerby stops at the terrace of the pizzeria where the coffees have been cold for some time. “Congratulations,” he tells her. “It’s not right what he did. Taking money here or there, wheeling and dealing, that’s one thing. But attacking young women isn’t right,” he says. Marija thanks him with a shy smile, her eyes protected by a pair of dark sunglasses.

Marija Lukić no longer believes in Serbian justice, but she is determined to fight for her rights. “I will take it all the way to [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg. I know I’m right. I have 15,000 pieces of evidence that prove I’m right,” she says with determination. The next court date is set for 27 May.

This story has been translated from French.